Ghost Churches

Introduction

A new term in ecclesial nomenclature is “ghosting.” It denotes church members’ dropping out of their congregations without informing their church leadership, simply disappearing. In our age that increasingly disdains commitment to institutions, ghosting has been increasing for the last decade, and it has accelerated during the Covid drama. The dramatically altered social ambiance has given “ghosts” an ecclesial hall pass they never seem to intend to return.

It occurred to me that it would be a mistake to limit ecclesial ghosting to members. What about churches? Can churches become ghosts?

Tragically they can — and have. Let me list three ways.

Covid Ghosting

First, consider the churches that have in effect ceased to exist. I say, “in effect,” because churches that refuse to meet for protracted periods have simply closed shop. Why? Because the very meaning of church is “assembly” or “congregation.” Amid 2020 Covid culture you might have heard, “Be the church wherever you are,” or “The virtual church is still the church.” But there is nothing virtual about the church. A church that is not tactile is not the church. It is a ghost church.

This is not to suggest that churches that temporarily suspend meetings due to pervasive illness or the presence of a majority of the elderly, who are most vulnerable to Covid. It is, however, to declare that cancelation of Sunday worship until the state governor lifts lockdown prohibitions = cancelation of the church itself. In “cancel culture,” the most heartbreaking event is the church’s self-cancelation.

Doctrinal Ghosting

Second, ponder churches that have abandoned sound doctrine. It’s remarkable how many conservative churches that formally oppose liberalism don’t understand that liberalism began with the idea that the church doesn’t have access to revealed truth. The father of 19th century liberalism, Friedrich Schleiermacher, wrote: “Dogmatic theology is the science which systematizes the doctrine prevalent in a Christian church at a given time.”[1] No orthodox theologian anywhere would have dared offer that definition. Dogmatic theology is the application of the Bible, properly interpreted, to the church and world.[2]  Theology doesn’t include only what we call “systematic theology.” It also involves biblical devotion, comfort, law — how to live day to day in God’s world. This biblical truth far outstrips the most advanced psychological insights peddled in today’s churches. 

More and more churches major on self-help, therapy, addiction recovery, life coaching, and marriage seminars that, while not inherently wrong, are not the central ministry of the church, which actually is faithfully teaching and preaching the Word of God. Churches that substitute social programs and religious entertainment and commoditized “community” in an atomistic age for the simple, faithful ministry of the Word are ghost churches.

There is nothing virtual about the church. A church that is not tactile is not the church. It is a ghost church

More and more churches major on self-help, therapy, addiction recovery, life coaching, and marriage seminars that, while not inherently wrong, are not the central ministry of the church, which actually is faithfully teaching and preaching the Word of God. Churches that substitute social programs and religious entertainment and commoditized “community” in an atomistic age for the simple, faithful ministry of the Word are ghost churches.

Cultural Ghosting

Finally, think about the majority of churches in the West that see no calling to Christianize culture. They are committed to edifying themselves, as they should (Eph. 4:7–16), but seem to have missed the charge to bring all nations (not just individuals) under Christ’s authority (Mt. 28:18–20) and to press his reign in all areas of life (Eph. 1:15–23; cf. 2:4–7). Christians are called to glorify God in matters as seemingly trivial as eating or drinking (1 Cor. 10:31). To glorify God in all things means to act in obedience in every area of culture. Since the earth and its fullness are the Lord’s (1 Cor. 10:26, 28), to act as Christians in his world is to bring him glory everywhere. This necessitates Christianizing the world. The successful Great Commission to evangelize the world creates an increasing number of believers who glorify him in all things everywhere. Therefore, to speak of world evangelization while opposing world Christianization is to talk at cross purposes.

One role of the church is to prepare the saints to vanquish the world, the flesh, and the devil by donning the whole armor of God (Eph. 6:10–20). The church is not merely a haven of protection from earthly evil. It is also tasked to counter and crush that evil as God’s armory in equipping the saints for earthly victory.

But much of today’s church in the West is committed to a distorted view of “separation of church and state” and a soft-core dualism that sees the material world and this life as necessary evils to be avoided as much a possible while living for escape to an ethereal heaven rather than a resurrected and renovated earth in which God dwells (Rev. 21:1–5). The church can longer be social light and salt because it has hidden its illumination within the four walls of the church and has lost its saltiness and is therefore being trampled underfoot by secularists and neo-pagans.

This is a tragic but fit consequence for a ghost church, which prefers ethereal marginalization to robust engagement.

Conclusion

Ghost churches litter the landscape of the West.  It is impossible to imagine the patent de-Christianization of the West apart from the ghosting of the church. It is possible for a church to be vibrant within a hostile society, but this condition can never be permanent: either the church will gradually remold society in a Christian image. Or the godless society will infect and emasculate the church. Ghost churches have paved the way for godless culture, and reversing the ghosting is a necessary precondition of a godly society.


[1] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1928, 1976), 88.

[2] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 1987), 76–88.

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